mini-review · stuff I read

Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood by Karina Longworth

38647394Summary from Goodreads:
In this riveting popular history, the creator of You Must Remember This probes the inner workings of Hollywood’s glamorous golden age through the stories of some of the dozens of actresses pursued by Howard Hughes, to reveal how the millionaire mogul’s obsessions with sex, power and publicity trapped, abused, or benefitted women who dreamt of screen stardom.

In recent months, the media has reported on scores of entertainment figures who used their power and money in Hollywood to sexually harass and coerce some of the most talented women in cinema and television. But as Karina Longworth reminds us, long before the Harvey Weinsteins there was Howard Hughes—the Texas millionaire, pilot, and filmmaker whose reputation as a cinematic provocateur was matched only by that as a prolific womanizer.

His supposed conquests between his first divorce in the late 1920s and his marriage to actress Jean Peters in 1957 included many of Hollywood’s most famous actresses, among them Billie Dove, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and Lana Turner. From promoting bombshells like Jean Harlow and Jane Russell to his contentious battles with the censors, Hughes—perhaps more than any other filmmaker of his era—commoditized male desire as he objectified and sexualized women. Yet there were also numerous women pulled into Hughes’s grasp who never made it to the screen, sometimes virtually imprisoned by an increasingly paranoid and disturbed Hughes, who retained multitudes of private investigators, security personnel, and informers to make certain these actresses would not escape his clutches.

Vivid, perceptive, timely, and ridiculously entertaining, Seduction is a landmark work that examines women, sex, and male power in Hollywood during its golden age—a legacy that endures nearly a century later.

I’ve been a fan of Karina Longworth’s work on her podcast You Must Remember This for a while so I was really excited to see that she had a book coming out about Howard Hughes. Not because of Howard Hughes, because ew, gross, but because she was going to shine a light on the women he treated like garbage. Seduction is the story of how Hughes had this weirdly charming personality, convinced a lot of people that he knew what he was doing in the movie business, and ultimately became a person suffering from untreated mental illness.

One of the major themes in Seduction is how Hughes controlled women’s careers in the movie industry, to the extent that some of them didn’t even work during the time they lived in Hollywood. Women like Jane Russell, Faith Domergue, and Billie Dove who were poised for Betty Davis-levels of stardom, and who were good actresses, were reduced to their noticeable physical assets and made far fewer movies than contemporaries at other studios. Myraid other young women, some of them young enough to require their mothers to come with them, were lured to Hollywood with the promise of stardom and then kept under constant surveillance and prevented from working.

While I was not shocked that he was a completely gross, creepy, controlling predator, particularly toward very young women of a certain physical type, I was surprised that he was a really bad businessman and filmmaker (I should have known about the filmmaker stuff, I have seen The Conqueror, do not recommend). He tinkered with movies so long that they went over budget, or no longer made sense. RKO died under his leadership. The only reason he had money to blow in Hollywood was because he inherited an extremely prosperous manufacturing company from this father and then picked up lucrative defense contracts during World War II.

Hughes was not the only gross dude running around Hollywood between the 1920s and 1960s. There were a lot, trust me. For all the glitz and glamour, “classic” Hollywood had a lot of garbage hiding under rocks and Karina shines a very strong light on one particular corner. Now, if you have listened to some of the podcast episodes that were produced as part of the publicity for Seduction don’t worry that the same information is re-hashed in both places – the episodes and the book complement each other, so I highly recommend both.

Dear FTC: I borrowed a copy of this book from my store.

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mini-review · stuff I read

American Overdose: The Opioid Tragedy in Three Acts by Chris McGreal

39089122Summary from Goodreads:
A comprehensive portrait of a uniquely American epidemic–devastating in its findings and damning in its conclusions
The opioid epidemic has been described as “one of the greatest mistakes of modern medicine.” But calling it a mistake is a generous rewriting of the history of greed, corruption, and indifference that pushed the US into consuming more than 80 percent of the world’s opioid painkillers.
Journeying through lives and communities wrecked by the epidemic, Chris McGreal reveals not only how Big Pharma hooked Americans on powerfully addictive drugs, but the corrupting of medicine and public institutions that let the opioid makers get away with it.
The starting point for McGreal’s deeply reported investigation is the miners promised that opioid painkillers would restore their wrecked bodies, but who became targets of “drug dealers in white coats.”
A few heroic physicians warned of impending disaster. But American Overdose exposes the powerful forces they were up against, including the pharmaceutical industry’s coopting of the Food and Drug Administration and Congress in the drive to push painkillers–resulting in the resurgence of heroin cartels in the American heartland. McGreal tells the story, in terms both broad and intimate, of people hit by a catastrophe they never saw coming. Years in the making, its ruinous consequences will stretch years into the future.

I haven’t read Dreamland or Dopesick yet (they’re on the TBR, I swear) but my first dive into books about the opioid crisis made me Very Angry. Like, gnaw-my-arm-off levels of frustration akin to reading Bad Blood angry.

The actual lack of empathy and compassion of not only Big Pharma representatives, lobbyists, and politicians, but the physicians and other healthcare workers….it is appalling. All the systems that are supposed to prevent problems like this failed us because Capitalism and Political Lobbying (like, WTF, do people not understand about Conflict of Interest???). Also, there was/is an extremely concerning disregard of actual science by scientists and physicians. “Oh, legitimate pain is a barrier to addiction” – did they not actually take biochemistry? None of these people should be allowed to practice science or medicine again.

The sad thing is that we really do lack actual, non-subjective methods of measuring pain and further research into how the body processes pain signals. Getting good research into those areas will help develop non-opioid treatment methods. But people would rather throw a pill at it instead of try something more labor-intensive like extended physical therapy or massage. Even if new treatments are developed it will be too late for tens of thousands of people who got hooked on opioids or died from overdoses or from taking tainted opioids.

McGreal also touched upon the privilege granted to those rural, white, blue-collar workers with legitimate pain caught up in the money-making schemes of unscrupulous, greedy “practitioners” and now addicted to powerful narcotics versus the hard-line taken by law enforcement regarding the crack cocaine epidemic affecting people of color in urban areas during the 1980s (who probably also had legitimate pain issues and little access to medication or ongoing quality medical care). He didn’t delve too deeply into racism or the disparities but did point them out to make plain the sympathy shown to one group and not the other.

A definite recommend for everyone.

Dear FTC: I borrowed a copy of this book from my store.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing by Merve Emre

39721925Summary from Goodreads:
An unprecedented history of a personality test devised in the 1940s by a mother and daughter, both homemakers, that has achieved cult-like status and is used in today’s most distinguished boardrooms, classrooms, and beyond.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is the most popular personality test in the world. It has been harnessed by Fortune 100 companies, universities, hospitals, churches, and the military. Its language – of extraversion vs. introversion, thinking vs. feeling – has inspired online dating platforms and BuzzFeed quizzes alike. And yet despite the test’s widespread adoption, experts in the field of psychometric testing, a $500 million industry, struggle to account for its success – no less to validate its results. How did the Myers-Briggs test insinuate itself into our jobs, our relationships, our Internet, our lives?

First conceived in the 1920s by the mother-daughter team of Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, a pair of aspiring novelists and devoted homemakers, the Myers-Briggs was designed to bring the gospel of Carl Jung to the masses. But it would take on a life of its own, reaching from the smoke-filled boardrooms of mid-century New York to Berkeley, California, where it was honed against some of the twentieth century’s greatest creative minds. It would travel across the world to London, Zurich, Cape Town, Melbourne, and Tokyo; to elementary schools, nunneries, wellness retreats, and the closed-door corporate training sessions of today.

Drawing from original reporting and never-before-published documents, The Personality Brokers examines nothing less than the definition of the self – our attempts to grasp, categorize, and quantify our personalities. Surprising and absorbing, the book, like the test at its heart, considers the timeless question: What makes you you?

Chances are, you’ve probably taken a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test – with all the questions that seem to have no answer (I’m an INTJ, hello). Have you ever been curious about the origins of a test that so many companies have come to rely on for team-building and sales success? In The Personality Brokers Emre has set herself the task of investigating the origins of this million-dollar industry. And it turns out that the current owners of the MBTI really don’t want anyone poking into the rigor of the indicator. In-teresting….

If you were ever a skeptic of personality testing then this book will confirm that belief. I had suspected that the MBTI was less than scientifically rigorous, but WOW is it not even valid over repeat testing. The author really pulled a lot of information together – even when she couldn’t gain access to Isabel Myers Briggs papers – to try and shed some light on this widespread (and lucrative) evaluation. The beginning of the book was a bit hard to get into but it picked up. Once you get through all the Jungian fan-worship it gets better.

The Personality Brokers is out today.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · Read My Own Damn Books · stuff I read

Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley by Alison Weir

835832Summary from Goodreads:
On the night of 10 February 1567 an explosion devastated the Edinburgh residence of Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. The noise was heard as far away as Holyrood Palace, where Queen Mary was attending a wedding masque. Those arriving at the scene of devastation found, in the garden, the naked corpses of Darnley and his valet. Neither had died in the explosion, but both bodies bore marks of strangulation.

It was clear that they had been murdered and the house destroyed in an attempt to obliterate the evidence. Darnley was not a popular king-consort, but he was regarded by many as having a valid claim to the English throne. For this reason Elizabeth I had opposed his family’s longstanding wish to marry him to Mary Stuart, who herself claimed to be the rightful queen of England.

Alison Weir’s investigation of Darnley’s murder is set against one of the most dramatic periods in British history. Her conclusions shed a brilliant new light on the actions and motives of the conspirators and, in particular, the extent of Mary’s own involvement.

Having finished Jenny Wormald’s analysis of Mary’s personal rule, I jumped right into Alison Weir’s exhaustive analysis of the murder of Lord Darnley, one of the only Weir biographies I hadn’t yet read. And it’s pretty safe to conclude that Weir has turned over all the stones currently available to turn over and we can conclude that:

  1. Mary did not collude in the murder of her worthless husband, though if the pox had carried him off she would have been perfectly happy about it because he was a complete douche.
  2. She made some really terrible choices, starting with marrying Darnley in the first place, that just laid her open for others to take advantage of her misfortune such that she never regained her footing.

Although one would think that Darnley’s murderers could have come up with a more subtle plan than “blow up the house and if that fails smother him.” The guy was known to party a little too hard – couldn’t he have fallen out a window of Edinburgh Castle or drowned in the Loch or Firth or something?

Dear FTC: I’ve owned my copy of this book for a number of years.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul by Eleanor Herman

36447149Summary from Goodreads:
The story of poison is the story of power. For centuries, royal families have feared the gut-roiling, vomit-inducing agony of a little something added to their food or wine by an enemy. To avoid poison, they depended on tasters, unicorn horns, and antidotes tested on condemned prisoners. Servants licked the royal family’s spoons, tried on their underpants and tested their chamber pots.

Ironically, royals terrified of poison were unknowingly poisoning themselves daily with their cosmetics, medications, and filthy living conditions. Women wore makeup made with mercury and lead. Men rubbed turds on their bald spots. Physicians prescribed mercury enemas, arsenic skin cream, drinks of lead filings, and potions of human fat and skull, fresh from the executioner. The most gorgeous palaces were little better than filthy latrines. Gazing at gorgeous portraits of centuries past, we don’t see what lies beneath the royal robes and the stench of unwashed bodies; the lice feasting on private parts; and worms nesting in the intestines.

In The Royal Art of Poison, Eleanor Herman combines her unique access to royal archives with cutting-edge forensic discoveries to tell the true story of Europe’s glittering palaces: one of medical bafflement, poisonous cosmetics, ever-present excrement, festering natural illness, and, sometimes, murder.

I think, if you didn’t know anything about medieval or renaissance medicine, etc., then I think The Royal Art of Poison would be really entertaining for you. Herman has a great flair for pop history writing (I’ve really enjoyed her Sex with Kings and Sex with the Queen books). But for ME, while it was an enjoyable read I didn’t get much new information out of the book (an epidemiology degree and several history of medicine courses will take the shine right off the topic). However, the most fascinating section was a selection of mini-bios of historical figures who famously were or were not poisoned and whether a modern forensic examination could make that determination. (It appears that some people WERE NOT poisoned, except probably by the raft of Royal Physicians who liked to dose people with heavy metals…which would kill you anyway. With a lot of pain and agony.)

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison

35959632Summary from Goodreads:
By the New York Times bestselling author of The Empathy Exams, an exploration of addiction, and the stories we tell about it, that reinvents the traditional recovery memoir.

With its deeply personal and seamless blend of memoir, cultural history, literary criticism, and journalistic reportage, The Recovering turns our understanding of the traditional addiction narrative on its head, demonstrating that the story of recovery can be every bit as electrifying as the train wreck itself. Leslie Jamison deftly excavates the stories we tell about addiction–both her own and others’–and examines what we want these stories to do, and what happens when they fail us.

All the while, she offers a fascinating look at the larger history of the recovery movement, and at the literary and artistic geniuses whose lives and works were shaped by alcoholism and substance dependence, including John Berryman, Jean Rhys, Raymond Carver, Billie Holiday, David Foster Wallace, and Denis Johnson, as well as brilliant figures lost to obscurity but newly illuminated here.

For the power of her striking language and the sharpness of her piercing observations, Jamison has been compared to such iconic writers as Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. Yet her utterly singular voice also offers something new. With enormous empathy and wisdom, Jamison has given us nothing less than the story of addiction and recovery in America writ large, a definitive and revelatory account that will resonate for years to come.

I really enjoyed Leslie Jamison’s memoir/history of alcoholic writers/ideas about “sober genius.” I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was most interested in all the parts that took place in my town (look, there’s The Foxhead! Java House! I know where that bakery is!). There are a lot of personal stories in this book and I think Jamison does all of them justice.

That said, I do think that Jamison doesn’t quite make her point – that getting sober doesn’t stifle creativity. Her examples, Carver aside since I’ve never really liked Gordon Lish and I’m with Carver on Lish basically rewriting Carver’s stories, are almost all writers who really failed at sobriety or never managed to capture the magic again while sober (Berryman, Rhys, Jackson, etc.). But she doesn’t focus very much on Denis Johnson, also an Iowa alum who not only got famous not only for his writing but for how spectacularly wasted he could get. But he did clean up, and become a writing teacher, and continued to write – he was sober (I think, I’m not solid on timeline) when Tree of Smoke won the NBA and his last collection of stories is stunning. I wonder if she had at all been given an early copy of Denis Johnson’s last story collection since he died last May as he finished that collection and she would have been finishing the final draft of this book. I think it would have helped her thesis that getting sober doesn’t kill genius.

I think also she could have put more of her Author’s Note – where she talks about how AA is not the only way and that medication-aided sobriety is also a good and necessary thing – into the body of the book. Because it comes off a bit as AA is the only way. It’s the focus since AA worked for her, and a lot of the writers she researched did AA, too, but the book maybe needed a broader treatment focus.

Dear FTC: I bought a copy of this book because I super-love Leslie Jamison’s writing.

mini-review · stuff I read

Futureface: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging by Alex Wagner

33931748Summary from Goodreads:
Alex Wagner has always been fascinated by stories of exile and migration. Her father’s ancestors immigrated to the United States from Ireland and Luxembourg. Her mother fled Rangoon in the 1960s, escaping Burma’s military dictatorship. In her professional life, Wagner reported from the Arizona-Mexico border, where agents, drones, cameras, and military hardware guarded the line between two nations. She listened to debates about whether the United States should be a melting pot or a salad bowl. She knew that moving from one land to another–and the accompanying recombination of individual and tribal identities–was the story of America. And she was happy that her own mixed-race ancestry and late twentieth-century education had taught her that identity is mutable and meaningless, a thing we make rather than a thing we are.

When a cousin’s offhand comment threw a mystery into her personal story-introducing the possibility of an exciting new twist in her already complex family history–Wagner was suddenly awakened to her own deep hunger to be something, to belong, to have an identity that mattered, a tribe of her own. Intoxicated by the possibility, she became determined to investigate her genealogy. So she set off on a quest to find the truth about her family history.

The journey takes Wagner from Burma to Luxembourg, from ruined colonial capitals with records written on banana leaves to Mormon databases and high-tech genetic labs. As she gets closer to solving the mystery of her own ancestry, she begins to grapple with a deeper question: Does it matter? Is our enduring obsession with blood and land, race and identity, worth all the trouble it’s caused us?

The answers can be found in this deeply personal account of her search for belonging, a meditation on the things that define us as insiders and outsiders and make us think in terms of “us” and “them.” In this time of conflict over who we are as a country, when so much emphasis is placed on ethnic, religious, and national divisions, Futureface constructs a narrative where we all belong.

I had a little trouble getting into Futureface. I’m not sure if it was the structure or the writing style. When Wagner digs into subjects like the history of Burma/Myanmar and her family’s role in it’s history or the underlying data structure of the 23andMe, etc. genetic ancestry companies the book is really interesting.  But for me, a lot of times it was….just fine, not necessarily compelling. Her dad was originally from Iowa (Allamakee County, specifically) so that was an unexpected connection.

Dear FTC: I read most of this as a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss, but it expired with about 30 pages to go so I had to round up a paper copy to borrow.

#BookishBloggersUnite

#BookishBloggersUnite – Kicking off US Women’s History Month

Hello everyone!

Bookish Bloggers Unite was formed when a group of like-minded writers decided they want to talk about books together.

Sue at Doddy About Books is hosting this week’s tag which is Favourite Women Writers Across Multiple Genres. Pick your favourite genres and tell us about your favourite female authors writing within them (or around them or across them!) Anyone can play – just pop your link in the linky at Sue’s page.

ja cassie drawingClassics

Jane Austen, 5ever. I will never tire of re-reading Austen’s work, from the ridiculousness of her Juvenilia to the beauty of Wentworth’s letter in Persuasion. Even the letters, because I always want to kick Cassandra in the shins for destroying so many letters. There are so many layers to her books I will never find something new on each reading.

Other perennial favorites are Anne Brontë, Charlotte Brontë (sorry, Emily fans – don’t @ me), George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell (oh, North and South, I do love thee, also your adaptation), and Edith Wharton.

PossessionbookjacketLiterary Fiction

This is where I lose my bananas over Possession by A.S. Byatt. It is by far my favorite novel by Byatt. On each reading I am convinced anew that Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte are not merely derivatives of Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti invented for the purposes of the narrative but real poets who actually existed in Victorian England. Possession allows you to time travel, with out actually using the time travel trope by moving brilliantly between the Victorian and late twentieth-century settings. It is a literary mystery hidden within a poetry collection within a love story. All of Byatt’s novels and stories have these deeply textured, rich characters and settings – The Children’s Book, The Virgin in the Garden, Angels and Insects, and so on.

Another favorite lit-fic author is Margaret Atwood. If your only exposure to Atwood is from The Handmaid’s Tale (social dystopia), try the Maddaddam trilogy (environmental dystopia, which didn’t start out with that trilogy name), Alias Grace (ghost story), Hag-Seed (retelling of The Tempest as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series), Bodily Harm (woman trying to keep her life together), or Surfacing (a thriller….perhaps?).

Georgette_HeyerRomance

I can’t mention the romance genre without introducing you to the Grande Dame and Grandmother of the historical romance genre, Georgette Heyer. She is the woman who conjoined the social novel of Jane Austen, with all attendant historical details, to the marriage plot of the twentieth-century. The modern historical romance machine owes its existence to the woman who gave us the Duke of Avon (think the Vicomte de Valmont from Dangerous Liaisons but not a jerk and also English) in These Old Shades. Start with Venetia (Regency) or The Convenient Marriage (Georgian) and if you can get the audiobooks read by Richard Armitage (aka Thorin Oakenshield and John Thorton), do that.

I have a laundry-list of authors who I auto-buy in the romance genre: Eloisa James, Tessa Dare, Sarah MacLean, Maya Rodale, Cat Sebastian, Alisha Rai, Alyssa Cole, and Elizabeth Hoyt. Probably more. The Nook account, it explodeth with goodness.

Agatha_ChristieMystery

Y’all, I do not need to explain Agatha Christie to you. Some of her books don’t age as well (I forget that some of the plots turn on some casual racism and then I am that literal grimace face emoji) but the brilliance of plots like Murder on the Orient Express4:50 from PaddingtonAnd Then There Were None, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd can never be equaled. Now, if you like Christie novels, and want to stay with a contemporaneous writer but want sleuths with more flaws, I recommend Dorothy Sayers, creator of the shell-shocked Lord Peter Wimsey (The Nine Tailors will give you a mini-education in the uniquely English art of change-ringing) and mystery writer Harriet Vane (Gaudy Night contains a capsule portrait of a women’s college at Oxford in the 1930s).

Some of my favorite modern mystery writers are Tasha Alexander, Laurie R. King, and P.D. James (who I share a birthday with).

Science Fiction and Fantasy

Have you met Ann Leckie? Check out Ancillary Justice, the revenge plot of a massive starship AI now contained with in a single, fragile humanoid body. This is an genre where I’m a little light on “favorites” because I own loads of SFF books….but just haven’t read them. Or I’ve read one book from an author, but not any others. Project Overdue Reads, you are being paged.

22710140Comics

Dana Simpson burst into my reading lineup last year with her Phoebe and Her Unicorn webcomic series. You can start with the first actual OGN, The Magic Storm, but I totally recommend just going back to the beginning – they read VERY fast. Other favorite writers/illustrators include Lucy Knisley and Sarah Andersen.

A favorite writer of comics is G. Willow Wilson, creator of the awesome Ms. Marvel series, and I will read anything she writes. A favorite illustrator I’ve followed from series to series is Fiona Staples.

Non-fiction

Because this post is getting very long, I’m going to do a quick round-up of favorite non-fiction writers spanning memoir, humor, personal essay, science, and women’s studies.

Roxane Gay – Bad Feminist is a warm-up for the most wrenching book I have ever read, Hunger
Jenny Lawson – be prepared to laugh forever with Jenny as she uses her droll and dry humor to discuss everything from her mental health to her fascination with taxidermied rodents dressed in people clothes
Sarah Vowell – Assassination Vacation is one of my favorite road-trip audiobooks
Alison Weir (her history, I’m not the biggest fan of her novels) – Tudors forever, though I really love her book about Eleanor of Aquitaine
Terry Tempest Williams – When Women Were Birds always
Mary Roach – you want this book about the science of sex, you are welcome

And that’s it for this week! Kick off Women’s History Month with some of your favorite authors.